Trudeau, O’Toole call debate question on Quebec’s secularism offensive, unfair


Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today a question asked during last night's English debate regarding Quebec’s secularism law was “offensive."

Moderator Shachi Kurl, President of the Angus Reid Institute, front, joins Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, back left to right, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole pose for an official photo before the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today a question asked during last night's English debate regarding Quebec's secularism law was "offensive."

The debate kicked off with a fiery exchange between Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and debate moderator Shachi Kurl over Bill 21 — which bans some civil servants, including teachers, police officers and government lawyers, from wearing religious symbols at work — and Bill 96, which would make French the only language needed to work in the province.

    "You denied that Quebec has problems with racism yet you defend legislation such as Bills 96 and 21 which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones. Quebec is recognized as a distinct society but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws," asked Kurl.

    "The question seems to imply the answer you want," Blanchet replied. "Those laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec."

    Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, asked Blanchet more than once why he supports what she called "discriminatory laws."

    "You may repeat as many times as you like that those are discriminatory laws," Blanchet said. "We are saying that those are legitimate laws that apply on Quebec territory and there seems to be people around here which share this point of view."

    Speaking during a campaign stop in Hamilton today, Trudeau said he was taken aback by the question.

    "My position on this is known, not in favour of that particular law. But it is wrong to suggest that Quebecers are racist," he said.

    "As a Quebecer, I found that question really offensive. I think, yes, there is lots of work to do to continue to fight systemic racism across the country and in every part of this country. But I don't think that question was acceptable or appropriate … I had a hard time processing [it] even last night."

    When asked why he didn't push back during the debate, Trudeau said he didn't think it was appropriate to interrupt the moderator.

    Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said he also found some of the questions during the debate, organized by the Leaders' Debates Commission and produced by a coalition of media outlets, "a little unfair."

    "Quebecers are not racist and it's unfair to make that sweeping categorization. They've made decisions and laws passed by their national assembly," he said from Missisauga, Ont.

    "We have to make sure that we work together and we respect one another. That's why I said I would never challenge a law passed by the National Assembly of Quebec, Queen's Park or here in Toronto or by any provincial assembly."

    O'Toole added that he would never introduce a law like Bill 21 federally.

    Paul: It's 'discriminatory legislation'

    At a separate news conference in Ottawa, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it's a mistake to think systemic racism is isolated to one province or territory.

    "That hurts the fight against those forms of discrimination. We've got to acknowledge this exists everywhere across the country. One of the biggest examples is Indigenous communities do not have clean drinking water. That is a horrible example of how serious systemic racism, discrimination is," he said.

    "We've got to be very clear, this is not a problem of any one province or territory. It exists everywhere in Canada. And to tackle it, we've got to acknowledge that it's everywhere and work together towards eradicating it."

    Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said systemic racism isn't exclusive to Quebec but it does exist.

    "There is a perception that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec. But in fact, it exists all the over Canada," she said during a campaign stop in Ottawa.

    "With respect to Bill 21, I've always been clear in saying that I believe it to be discriminatory legislation. This is a law that is a violation of fundamental rights and freedom of expression, as well as freedom of religion, and it's not because I'm saying that I don't like Quebec. My husband and I have fights once in a while. We've been together 30 years but we have fights and when he's wrong, I tell him so. But I tell him that with respect and with friendship."

    Premier defends 'perfectly legitimate' bills

    Quebec Premier François Legault went on the offensive at a scheduled news conference Friday, where he addressed what he called an "attack" on two "perfectly legitimate" bills.

    "To claim that protecting the French language is discriminatory or racist is ridiculous," said Legault.

    "I will certainly not apologize for defending our language, our values, our powers. It is my duty as premier of Quebec."

    Legault said the question Kurl posed last night was an "attack for sure against Quebec."

    "Somebody who's supposed to be the referee decided to be part of certain teams, saying that those laws are discriminatory," he said. "It's unacceptable."

    Earlier this year, a Quebec court found the law violates the basic rights of religious minorities in the province, but those violations are permissible because of the Constitution's notwithstanding clause.

    The ruling by Justice Marc-André Blanchard also declared that the most contentious parts of the law — the religious symbols ban for many government employees — can't be applied to English schools.

    With files from Sabrina Jonas

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